By Jeffrey Callison, Assistant Secretary
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Many hundreds of inmates crowded onto the yard at Folsom State Prison on a recent sunny afternoon for a concert by legends in Mexican music: Los Tigres del Norte. The band plays in the Norteño style and has fans across several generations. As Los Tigres performed a two-hour set filled with popular songs, a crew from the Univision network was at work filming the concert. The crew has also taped a couple of dozen interviews and will produce an hour-long primetime broadcast later this year.
Many musicians have wanted to play at Folsom over the years, doubtless inspired by the success Johnny Cash enjoyed there. Typically those requests were denied because CDCR is not in the business of marketing artists. But Undersecretary Ralph Diaz said the pitch from Los Tigres was more interesting to the department.
“The band came to us with a unique proposal. They didn’t want to just play a concert; they wanted to hear from the inmate population and send a specific message through their music,” Undersecretary Diaz said. “While this concert could have only been about entertainment value, when I met with (band leader) Jorge Hernández, it became clear that their message of hope and rehabilitation was in line with ours.”
When Los Tigres first contacted CDCR, it was actually through a man who helped popularize Latin music in the United States: Zach Horowitz, former executive at Universal Music Group, the world’s biggest music company. Horowitz says he’s a long-time fan of Los Tigres and he brought them into Universal in 2008. “Beyond their music, one of the things I’ve most admired about them is their willingness to speak out about issues impacting the Latino community. We both share a concern about Latino incarceration, in California and elsewhere. What better way to bring attention to this issue, we thought, than to have Los Tigres perform a concert at a California prison, a state where Latinos represent (43 percent) of the inmate population.”
Horowitz was particularly intrigued by the possibility of putting on the concert at Folsom with 2018 being the 50th anniversary of Cash’s most famous concerts there. After months of negotiations, Los Tigres and CDCR agreed on two concerts: one at Folsom State Prison on April 17 and a second at Folsom Women’s Facility on April 18. (The women’s concert was strongly recommended by Folsom leadership.)
At the men’s prison concert, many in the crowd seemed very familiar with the band’s music. One inmate stood front and center with a homemade paper sign and shouted out seemingly every word of every song. Undersecretary Diaz said the whole event even seemed surreal: “The happy disbelief on the faces of inmates of all races that these icons of music were actually performing at Folsom State Prison. To have these songs I grew up with echoing over the buildings of historic Folsom and to look around and see quite a few staff also enjoying the incredible performance by Los Tigres.”
Highlights of the concert included a Spanish-language version of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”, translated in collaboration with the Cash family. But perhaps the biggest roar from the inmates came when one of them joined Los Tigres del Norte on stage. Manuel Mena, who is serving a 36-years-to-life sentence, is a musician who plays accordion, and he played and sang on “Un Dia a La Vez” (“One Day at a Time”).
Not only was the concert an emotional event for the inmates, it was also memorable for the band. As Jorge Hernández told a reporter from NPR, “When we came to this country, the first performance that we did was in a prison in Soledad, California. It reminds us it’s a blessing that we can be here at Folsom playing and celebrating our coming to this country, performing in a prison, but also performing now at Folsom Prison.”
As well as recording the two concerts at Folsom, Univision also taped interviews in March with 23 Latino inmates. Words and music will be intertwined for an hour-long documentary planned to air in late 2018. Zach Horowitz hopes the program will provoke dialogue about the Latino incarceration rate. Undersecretary Diaz looks for it to challenge old misconceptions about prisons, “by portraying our staff’s commitment to rehabilitation and how the programs and services we provide help transform lives. I hope the documentary also tells the stories of the inmates who transition from criminal lifestyles to rehabilitation through hope and redemption.” He also thanked staff and leadership at Folsom for their hard work in making the concerts a success, in particular Warden Rick Hill, Chief Deputy Warden Jared Lozano and Lieutenant Jack Huey, the prison’s public information officer.